First Solar may recycle 100,000 Abound Solar CdTe panels

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First Solar has said that it has contacted Abound Solar's trustees to begin discussions whether it can recover materials from up to 100,000 panels made by the bankrupt cadmium telluride (CdTe) module manufacturer.

Laura Abram, First Solar's Director of Sustainability and Community Affairs, told PV-Tech yesterday: “In the past couple of weeks, we have reached out to Abound in Europe and the US and we're looking at the feasibility of providing recycling services for their modules. We want to do what we can to support Abound for the sake of the industry. It's important for the solar industry as a whole to start implementing responsible disposal recycling practices.”

Abound Solar was founded in 2007 and had received around US$300m in equity from investors including BP Alternative Energy by the time it was awarded a US$400 million loan as part of the US Department of Energy's 1705 programme in 2010.

Abound received around US$70 million of that loan to expand its manufacturing facility in Colorado and establish a new site in Indiana before it filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in July last year.

The company blamed its failure on Chinese subsidies and listed US$82 million in liabilities and assets of US$136.1 million.

Last November, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) became aware that the leftover panels at the CdTe thin-film manufacturer's facility and warehouse posed a potential hazard.

Joe Schieffelin at the CDPHE said that minor amounts “100s of gallons” of hazardous chemicals had been left in the factory and had now been disposed of.  But there were around 100,000 panels, many of which had been returned from customers who reported underperformance.

“Abound was having trouble with the quality control on their panels and some of them worked OK, some of them didn't work at all, some of them worked partially. So many of them were returned and they accumulated a lot of panels that have a questionable quality.”

“We have told the Abound bankruptcy trustee that maybe you can send these to a recycler or even somebody who will pick through them and actually use the panels that are any good and those people will determine which ones are waste.”

Schieffelin said that the CDPHE was working closely with options for disposal with Abound's bankruptcy trustees, including a potential buyer.

“From our standpoint, we'd rather see those assets used to disposition the material and make sure it finds its way to the right place rather than pay us a fine. As long as the trustee is actively and aggressively trying to resolve the situation we're going to be happy with that. That's been the case so far. We feel bad about it too because it's a good industry to have here.”

If a buyer cannot be found, encasement in concrete would be a last resort, he said.

“When you talk about an inorganic product like a solar panel the only way to render those things safe to be disposed of in the ground is some kind of encapsulation – whether they would put that in cement or grind it up into little pieces and mix it into cement dust.”

First Solar, the world's leading CdTe thin film manufacturer, has been recycling its products since 2005. Abram said that process can now recover 95% of the semi-conductor material and 90% of the glass.

“We're a relatively young industry and we should get it right from the start and recycling and end of life responsibility is important for the solar industry as it is for other industries,” she said.

“If you look at how the PV industry is scaling globally, it's important that we ensure that those solutions to clean energy aren't going to be a burden on future generations. Responsible end of life management is important for the whole sector because environmentally sensitive materials are common throughout the entire industry.”

Cadmium is a carcinogenic metal but forms a stable compound with telluride. At peak production, CDPHE estimated that Abound produced 630 pounds of hazardous waste containing cadmium each month. The clean up is estimated to cost US$2.2m.

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